The NBA: Filling the Brackets

When this guy comes back, the rest of the league
better run in the opposite direction.
*All images are from the Associated Press.

Amidst March Madness fever (redundant?) and the fallout from the surprising trade deadline transactions, I want to make things interesting by calling out the teams whom I think will make the 2012 NBA Playoffs. This is pretty much my version of filling the NBA Brackets

1 – Chicago Bulls – Even with Rose injured, the Bulls should do fine. It might also be a blessing-in-disguise as Rose could be a little more fresh for what should be a deep playoff run. With 10 of their next 20 games against teams below .500, the Bulls should remain #1 in the East, if not the whole league.
2 – Miami Heat – 14 games in Miami’s remaining schedule are going be against teams .500 or better. At least 9 of those 14 games will be at home, but it’ll surely be tough grind to end the season for the consensus heels of the league. They might inch closer to the Bulls’ #1 spot, but I don’t really see, nor want, them going overtaking Chicago.
3 – Orlando Magic – With Ryan Anderson continuing to improve his stock for the Most Improved Player accolade, Jason Richardson returning to action, and Dwight Howard opting to stay, it seems everything is on the up-and-up for the Magic. Less extra-court concerns should translate into more on-court consistency. The schedule favors them, as 12 of their next 21 games are against teams below .500, though 4 of their last 5 matches will be on the road.
4 – Philadelphia 76ers – This would’ve been much easier had Spencer Hawes stayed healthy, and if Philly was able to land a quality big last March 15 to complement Elton Brand. Still, things look sunny in Philadelphia. They should retain their top spot in the Atlantic and, consequently, remain as a top 4 seed in the conference. Half their remaining games are against teams less than .500, which is good, but they will end the season with a 5-game road trip, which is not good.
5 – Atlanta Hawks – With 13 of their final 22 games against teams under .500, the Hawks should have enough to leapfrog the Pacers for 5th spot. Their frontline injuries notwithstanding, the Hawks have fared better than many expected. That, of course, is thanks to Josh Smith, who really should’ve been an All-Star. He’ll continue proving his All-Star worth as the season enters the homestretch.
6 – Indiana Pacers – As of this writing, the Pacers are down 51-60 to the Knicks, one night after losing to that same team. The addition of Leandro Barbosa should address some bench scoring issues, but he, and the team, will have to go thru a period of adjustment first. With majority of Indiana’s remaining matches against teams .500 or better, I’m pretty sure the Pacers will slip down to 6th spot.
7 – Boston Celtics – With both Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O’Neal out, and a really tough schedule looming to end the season (14 games against teams .500 or better), the Celtics probably won’t be able to snare the 5th or 6th spots. I think it was a good thing, however, for Danny Ainge not pulling the trigger on any trades. The Cs will be tough in the playoffs no matter in which seed they’re placed. Their most probable opponent, though, will be the Miami Heat. Yikes.
8 – Milwaukee Bucks – I know the Knicks seem like a better team after getting rid of Mike D’Antoni, but here’s me predicting the Bucks will still scrape by and take the 8th spot. Adding Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh to the Bucks, as bad as it is, is still better than subtracting D’Antoni from the Knicks. Milwaukee also has a relatively lighter schedule to end the season. In short, the Bucks have the inside track, and they would do well to take advantage of it. March 26 and April 11 will be big dates, though, as Milwaukee and New York collide in what might be the deciding games for the 8th seed.

1 – Oklahoma City Thunder – OKC is on a 3-game win streak and they should generally continue winning as the season hits its last third. In their next 22 games, the Thunder will face 12 teams .500 or better. They should win maybe half those games and then will all 10 against below .500 clubs. That should put them at 49-17 (.742), which should still be good enough for first in the West. Despite losing Eric Maynor for the rest of the season, OKC should still make do with the triumvirate of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka.
2 – Los Angeles Lakers – The Lakers did two good things at the trade deadline. They acquired an upgrade at the point when they got Ramon Sessions, and they kept their good-as-golden frontline of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. SF still figures to be a gaping hole, and losing the experience and leadership of Derek Fisher stings, but those aren’t viable excuses if the Lakers fail to move past SAS for the 2nd seed. I think Kobe & Co. are on pace to get maybe 17 or 18 more wins in their final 22 games.
3 – San Antonio Spurs – Trading away Richard Jefferson for Stephen Jackson will haunt San Antonio. The first thing it will do is it will make the final 24 games a lot tougher than they should be. And with half of those games against teams .500 or better, and Stephen Jackson out for about one more week, the Spurs’ trade deadline move won’t pay as much dividends as they probably hoped. I think San Antonio won’t go below the 3rd seed, but I do think they won’t be the Texan team advancing to the 2nd round of the playoffs, especially if they face the defending champs in the 1st round.
4 – Memphis Grizzlies – Zeebo is back, and though they did lose in OT to the Raptors in Randolph’s return after 2½ months in sick bay, the Grizzlies are still way better now than before. Both Randolph and Rudy Gay produced great scoring, and they should continue to do that in their final 24 matches. Half of those will be against teams under .500, so Memphis should be in good shape to stay in the middle of the West’s playoff seeding. In fact, I see them overtaking the Clips in a late surge for the 4th seed (7 of their final 8 games are against those under .500 clubs).
5 – Los Angeles Clippers – In a season of many highs, the lowest low came when the Clips recently lost to the Suns by four with both Grant Hill and Steve Nash resting. That doesn’t augur well for the Clips, since they’ll play Phoenix twice more in their final 24 games. And though I do think Nick Young is a promising young gun who might be able to help the Clips score a ton, he won’t do much in terms of playmaking, defense, or locker room presence. I see Lob City winning maybe 12-14 more games and finishing a shade ahead of Dallas for 5th spot.
6 – Dallas Mavericks – With no new pieces and just 7 of their final 21 games against below .500 teams, it looks like the Mavs won’t be climbing the ladder anytime soon. I see them winning just 10-11 more games, but if they’re not careful, they might just be the ousted off the 6th spot by another Texan team looking to improve even more.
7 – Houston Rockets – The Rockets managed to keep all their major assets after the trade deadline while adding another quality big man in Marcus Camby. Camby and Samuel Dalembert should make for an imposing tandem at the slot, while giving Luis Scola enough room to do what he does best, which is to be a poor man’s Pau Gasol. The return of both Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin should also prevent Houston from falling behind in the standings. They have a tough schedule ahead, but I can still see them winning around 10-11 more games to secure the 7th seed.
8 – Phoenix Suns – Phoenix is looking good after winning all three of their latest back-to-back-to-back gauntlet, including a nice one against the Clippers. The Suns have put themselves just 2 games behind Denver for the last Western playoff spot, and, coupled with Javale McGee’s entry in the Rockies, I believe Phoenix has enough to steal 8th. It will be a tough final 22 games, with 15 against teams .500 or better, but I think Nash and crew can actually pull it off provided both Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley continue to play strong. The Suns are also 100% healthy, so far.

After the JUMP, March 15 & 16, 2012 stat-stuffers:

March 15 Game Capsules:
DAL over CHA, 101-96
Dirk Nowitzki scored 27 points, pulled down 6 rebounds and dished out 5 assists, helping the Dallas Mavericks remain perfect against the Charlotte Bobcats. Jason Terry added 18 points for the Mavericks, who improved to 15-0 all-time versus the Bobcats. Corey Maggette ended with 21 points for Charlotte, which fell to an NBA-worst 6-36.

WAS over NOH< 99-89
John Wall recorded a double-double with 26 points and 12 assists to lead a shorthanded Wizards squad to a victory over the Hornets. Despite being without starters McGee and Young, the Wizards finished with five players in double figures including Roger Mason Jr., who buried four three- pointers en route to 19 points, helping Washington snap its six-game road losing streak.

OKC over DEN, 103-90
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook didn't score 91 points, and Serge Ibaka wasn't close to a triple-double, but the result was the same. The Oklahoma City Thunder beat Denver for the fourth straight time. Durant scored 24 points, Westbrook had 23 and James Harden added 18 off the bench against a Denver team playing after it learned one of its most veteran players had been traded. Andre Miller led Denver with 17 points off the bench and Danilo Gallinari had 15, but the Nuggets fell to 3-3 on a nine-game homestand.

UTA over MIN, 111-105 (OT)
Gordon Hayward scored a season-high 26 points and the Utah Jazz topped the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime. Devin Harris scored 18 points and Paul Millsap had 16 points with 11 rebounds and 8 steals for the Jazz, who bounced back from a loss to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday and earned their first overtime victory of the season in three chances. Kevin Love had 25 points and 16 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who have dropped three of their last four.

PHX over LAC, 91-87
Shannon Brown's season-high 21 points included a late fourth-quarter trey for Phoenix's first lead since the opening period, the go-ahead free-throws, and another pair of freebies to put the game out of reach as the Suns stunned the Clippers. Channing Frye finished with 12 points, Jared Dudley added 11 and Markieff Morris donated 10 in the win. Phoenix has now won seven of its last nine. Blake Griffin paced all scorers with 25 points for the Clippers, who have dropped four of their last five games at Staples Center.

March 16 Game Capsules:
ORL over NJN, 86-70
Dwight Howard is still with the Magic, and Orlando continues to dominate the New Jersey Nets. A day after deciding that he wouldn't opt out of his contract this summer, Howard supplied a game-high 18 points to lead Orlando over the Nets. Howard was one of six players to reach double-figures in scoring. Gerald Green had 14 points off the bench for the Nets, who suffered their third loss in four games.

MIA over PHI, 84-78
LeBron James filled the stat sheet with 29 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds, and the Miami Heat held off the Philadelphia 76ers. Dwyane Wade added 12 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists for the Heat, who nearly blew a 29-point second-half advantage. Miami won its 10th consecutive regular season game against Philadelphia, snapping a four-game road losing streak in the process. Evan Turner netted 13 points to go with 8 boards and 5 assists for the Sixers, who have lost two in a row following a three-game winning streak.

ATL over WAS, 102-88
Joe Johnson went 6-of-8 from three-point range on his way to a game-high 34 points to lead the Atlanta Hawks to a 102-88 victory over the Washington Wizards. Josh Smith filled the stat sheet with 23 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds for Atlanta, which tallied its eighth straight victory over Washington at home. John Wall had 14 points, 7 boards and 9 assists, but turned the ball over 9 times as the Wizards dropped to 1-3 on their current six-game road trip.

NYK over IND, 115-100
Tyson Chandler and JR Smith each netted 16 points as the Knicks utilized a balanced offensive attack to take down the Pacers. Chandler also had 7 rebounds and 4 blocks, Jeremy Lin donated 13 points and Carmelo Anthony and Steve Novak contributed 12 apiece for New York, which won its second straight game -- both by double- digit margins -- since former head coach Mike D'Antoni resigned. Darren Collison led the Pacers with 15 points and AJ Price added 14 for Indiana, which has lost five of seven.

POR over CHI, 100-89
A day after Portland cleaned house at the trade deadline, LaMarcus Aldridge fueled the Trail Blazers with 21 points as they downed the Chicago Bulls. The Blazers fired head coach Nate McMillan, waived former No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Greg Oden and traded starters Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby, but played inspired basketball against the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls, who were without Derrick Rose for the second straight game. Carlos Boozer had 22 points and 14 rebounds and Luol Deng netted 19 points for Chicago, which had its three-game winning streak snapped.

TOR over MEM, 114-100 (OT)
Jerryd Bayless scored 28 points and dished out 9 assists, as the visiting Toronto Raptors edged the Memphis Grizzlies. Gary Forbes had 20 points, while Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan supplied 18 points apiece for the Raptors, who improved to 2-1 on a five-game road trip and snapped a six-game losing streak to the Grizzlies. Marc Gasol scored a season-high 28 points to pace Memphis, which has dropped three of its last four games.

SAS over OKC, 114-105
Tim Duncan was one of five starters to finish in double figures as his 16 point, 19 rebound performance helped the Spurs hang on to a victory over Oklahoma City. Tony Parker scored a team-high 25 points to go with 7 assists, while DeJuan Blair added a double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds. San Antonio earned its third-straight victory. Russell Westbrook poured in a game-high 36 points and Kevin Durant followed with 25 in the loss as the Thunder dropped to 18-4 at home.

PHX over DET, 109-101
Jared Dudley scored 23 points, Channing Frye had 15 and 13 rebounds and the Suns downed the Pistons for their third win in as many nights. Marcin Gortat added 16 points, Grant Hill and Robin Lopez had 14 apiece and Steve Nash handed out 17 assists for the Suns, who are 8-2 since the All-Star break. Rodney Stuckey had 23 points and 8 assists to pace the Pistons, who had won four of five coming in.

SAC over BOS, 120-95
Marcus Thornton had 36 points and 5 steals, lifting the Sacramento Kings over the Boston Celtics. Jason Thompson added a double-double with 21 points and 15 rebounds for the Kings, who snapped an eight-game skid against Boston. Ray Allen ended with 26 points for the Celtics, who had a two-game winning streak snapped.

MIL over GSW, 120-98
Monta Ellis scored 18 points against his former team, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a win over the Golden State Warriors. Ellis, who came over from Golden State in a five-player trade this week, was on the court for almost 39 minutes in his Bucks debut, adding 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals. He was one of six Milwaukee players who scored in double digits as the Bucks were without forward Ersan Ilyasova, who has a bronchial condition.

LAL over MIN, 97-92
Kobe Bryant made five three-pointers en route to 28 points as the Los Angeles Lakers held off the Minnesota Timberwolves. Andrew Bynum recorded a double-double with 15 points and 14 rebounds, while Pau Gasol and Matt Barnes netted 17 points apiece to give the Lakers their fifth straight victory. Kevin Love poured in 27 points and grabbed 15 boards and Nikola Pekovic added 20 points and 12 rebounds for the T'wolves, who have dropped four of five since losing guard Ricky Rubio to an ACL tear.

Super Scorers (Top scorers of the night!)
March 15: Dirk Nowitzki (DAL) – 27
March 16: Courtney Lee (HOU) – 25

As the season goes into critical mode, can Dirk and the rest of
the Mavs repeat their miracle 2011 run?
Ragin’ Rebounders (Top rebounders of the night!)
March 15: Kevin Love (MIN) & Derrick Favors (UTA) – 16 
March 16: DeAndre Jordan (LAC) & Luis Scola (HOU) – 11

Dynamic Dishers (Top playmakers of the night!)
March 15: Luke Ridnour (MIN) - 13
March 16: Goran Dragic (HOU) – 14

Terrific Thieves (Top thieves of the night!)
March 15: Paul Millsap (UTA) – 8
March 16: Chris Paul (LAC) – 5

Boomin’ Blockers (Top blockers of the night!)
March 15: DeAndre Jordan (LAC) & Derrick Favors (UTA) – 4
March 16: A LOT with 1!!!

Sharpshooters (Top 3-point shooters of the night!)
March 15: James Harden (OKC), Roger Mason (WAS), & Channing Frye (PHX) – 4
March 16: Courtney Lee (HOU) – 4

March 15, 2012 First Five
C – Dirk Nowitzki (DAL) – 27pts, 6rebs, 5asts, 3 treys
F – Paul Millsap (UTA) – 16pts, 11rebs, 8stls, 4rebs, 2blks
F – Blake Griffin (LAC) – 25pts, 8rebs, 4asts, 1blk
G – John Wall (WAS) – 26pts, 12rebs, 4rebs, 3stls, 1blk
G – Luke Ridnour (MIN) – 18pts, 13asts, 3stls, 2rebs, 2blks

Paul Millsap and the Jazz will probably miss
the playoff bus again.

Honorable Mention:
Kevin Durant (OKC) – 24pts, 8rebs, 2asts, 2stls
Gordon Hayward (UTA) – 26pts, 3rebs, 3asts, 1stl
Kevin Love (MIN) – 25pts, 16rebs, 1ast

Daily Zap:

March 16, 2012 First Five
C – Jason Thompson (SAC) – 21pts, 15rebs, 4asts, 1stl
F – LeBron James (MIA) – 29pts, 8asts, 7rebs, 2stls, 2blks
F – Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (MIL) – 22pts, 17rebs, 3stls, 2asts, 1blk
G – Joe Johnson (ATL) – 34pts, 6 treys, 6rebs, 5asts, 1stl
G – Marcus Thornton (SAC) – 36pts, 5 treys, 5stls, 4rebs, 4asts

Jason Thompson has been solid for the Sacramento
Kings of late.

Honorable Mention:
Jerryd Bayless (TOR) – 28pts, 9asts, 6rebs, 3 treys, 3stls, 1blk
Russell Westbrook (OKC) – 36pts, 6asts, 3rebs, 3stls
Carlos Boozer (CHI) – 22pts, 14rebs, 4asts

Daily Zap:


*Game recaps were compiled and compressed from the Sports Network.
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